The Cooking For Solutions event in Monterey always offers a dizzying array of well planned activities, all promoting that the public take a second to think about the issues that surround our current food system, particularly our seafood. But deeper into the layers of after-hours food galas, wine tasting tours, and celebrity chef demos is the Sustainable Foods Institute, two full days aimed at members of the media, brimming with information from the heavy hitters at the forefront of our food industry. At times mind numbing with content, this year’s packed agenda presented countless topics to report. After taking some time to absorb the speeches, presentations, panel discussions, and statistics, some re-occurring themes emerge, but mostly an overlying presence I just can’t shake is how much food waste occurs within all tenants of our food system, both in the ocean and on the land.
We, as American consumers, have gotten so used to having whatever we want, whenever we want. You walk into a restaurant and expect to see that salmon filet on the menu. Food items that at one time were for special occasions have become the everyday, because they are being farmed to keep up with our demand. Our food has fallen into the business paradigm that rules our society, and this is not the correct place for it. Paul Hawkins opened up the Institute on Thursday with the notion of the cost vs. the price of our food. “We have very, very expensive food in this country, it’s just that the price is cheap,” he so eloquently points out. And so, when the price tag of that pound of shrimp looks so appealing to the general masses, why wouldn’t they choose to buy it? . A hamburger that costs 99 cents? Aren’t we lucky! The true cost of that shrimp or that beef, to our earth, to our health, to our political structure, is hidden deeply within the system of speed and convenience we have become used to.
When food is available so cheap, it becomes less precious, which leads to huge amounts of waste. Today, the typical starting point of any of our food is at some sort of farm…massive, sprawling areas of land or sea in which one type of ingredient is cultivated, harvested, and then packed on a semi-truck for delivery. The whims of supply and demand create a timetable that doesn’t correspond with actual nutrients or freshness, leading to spoilage. Enter food safety issues, contamination, sickness, and ultimately the disposal of what could have fed hundreds of people. The industrialization of food distribution has created a system riddled with waste, from “fresh” produce to large bulk grains to tiny, individually packaged candy. Everything has an expiration date, and the more that is produced to appease the appetite of our vastly expanding population the more will not be used. This middle-man format of large scale distribution is also incredibly inefficient and sucks up our natural resources, food miles being one of those very expensive, yet unseen externalities that isn’t figured into your total at the register.
Our food marketing industry is constantly thinking up new products, labels and campaigns to make us hungry for something we’ve never tried before (have you seen the new Kraft “cheddar flavored” singles with bacon?), instead of recycling or re-inventing value added products from what gets thrown out. There is certainly a huge population of people in this country, and on a global level, who still can’t and never will afford that 99-cent hamburger. As the population grows, we will increasingly need to find ways of feeding everyone, and value added products are a valuable key to that struggle. Maine based Ingrid Bengis, of Ingrid Bengis Seafood, brought up a discussion about the use of fish “racks” during the panel “Greening the Blue Revolution“, the bits and pieces of unused meat left on the discarded skeletons of various sea catch. These racks sometimes make their way into fishmeal or aquaculture feed, but couldn’t it also go towards feeding the hungry a source of protein that is otherwise wasted?
Our restaurant culture certainly exacerbates waste, from the fast food level all the way up to fine dining. A chef that turns away a cut of fish because it isn’t quite long enough, or large enough, or small enough, or pink enough, shuts the door on a product that has already been killed, and there’s not much shelf life for that. Rick Bayless tells his story about starting Frontera Grill in Chicago. He was inspired by the regional cuisines of Mexico and wanted to showcase them here in the states while utilizing fresh, local ingredients. But at that point, in 1987, he hit a wall, finding that all available produce was under ripe and tasteless. Trials and tribulations ensued, specifically dealing with distributors that didn’t carry local strawberries because there was no demand for such a fleeting, fragile item. His passion led to forming direct relationships with area farmers and creating a system of respect for what they could provide for him. He appeals to other chef’s, saying that “we have to cook with what nature gives us”, opposing the idea of “perfection” in the kitchen just to fill a need for aesthetic on the plate.
Bayless also brought up another issue about a common lack of connection to the origins of our food. His example was about a farmer who saw one of the Frontera chefs nonchalantly throw a box of lettuce from the truck. This unconscious act points to more of the hidden systems of cost involved within every product. The amount of time, effort and labor involved from seed to fork is gigantic, and the kitchen worker was discounting that in one mere toss. At a consumer level, the more impersonal and separate we are from our food choices the easier it is to disregard the crisis our food system is in. The state of our oceans in particular offers a huge challenge in trying to educate the public…you literally can’t see what is going on underwater, which makes it that much easier to ignore the fact that we are still consuming wild animals on the brink of extinction.
“We are in the middle of a food revolution,” the reassuring words of our closing speaker, Marion Nestle, and despite what she identifies as the biggest issues; food insecurity, obesity, food safety, globalization, transportation, and harmful marketing techniques, there is heightened awareness within the crisis that is pointing towards change. The gigantic 2009 increase in lobbying funds from the corporate food industry is evidence that a battle is on, and those of us that can see it have to fight back with the only thing that seems to make much difference within the human race…our money. Even the most well intentioned efforts remain contradictory in some way or another. As Dr. Nestle was showing evidence of Coca Cola’s role in tooth decay within Latin America since they began targeted marketing there, I heard the crack and fizz of a can being opened, just a few feet away at the buffet table laden with Coke and M&M packed cookies. Not to mention the huge amount of waste that is inherent to any large event, especially food-centric ones. At what point will these gatherings themselves reflect the integrity of what we are trying to achieve?
The issues are so multifaceted and complex that it is maddening to try to weigh them all, but we are seeing more solutions to promote less wasteful food systems today. Regional, localized distributors, gleaning programs, citywide composting regulations and the popularity of value added products like pickles and jams, and the general up swelling of farmers markets and people sticking to seasonal eating habits. Ultimately, our food policies need to change dramatically at the governmental level, and if there were one thing I took away from Cooking For Solutions this year, it would be that we, the consumer, do have the power to make change. If Marion Nestle has hope, then I do too.